Thursday, June 30, 2011


Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" tops many people's list as the perfect film, but for me, any such list would have to start where Ingmar Bergman ended: with "Fanny & Alexander," the legendary director's remarkably beautiful final film.
In spite of being the most expensive and large-scale film of Ingmar Bergman's career, "Fanny & Alexander" is nevertheless a profoundly intimate and introspective movie about a well-to-do family in turn-of-the-century Sweden that has about it the dreamy air of semi-autobiographical nostalgia and reverie. Almost impossible not to view as the summation of the director's impressive and influential career, its narrative highlights a great many of Bergman's lifelong preoccupations: fate, the existence of God, ghosts, the endurance of love, the pain of existence - as well as several actors and character names he has used over the years.
Just a small part of "Fanny & Alexander"s expansive cast. From top to bottom: Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl, Pernilla Allwin as Fanny Ekdahl, Gunn Wållgren as Helena Ekdahl, Erland Josephson as Isllan Edwall as Oscar Ekdahl, Ewa Fröling as Emelie Ekdahl, Jan Malmsjö as Bishop Edvard Vergerud  Jarl Kulle as Gustav Adolf Ekdahl.

You don't have to be an art-house aficionado or Bergman-ophile to appreciate "Fanny & Alexander" for it is also Bergman's most accessible, warm, and life-embracing film. Full of humor and finely-observed details of familial devotion and discord, it is mercifully free of the usual Disneyfied depiction of childhood as an idyllic wonderland. "Fanny & Alexander" throws a trenchant light on the too-often terrifying vulnerability and helplessness that is the lot of the young while commenting poignantly on childhood's greatest gift...children are blessed with an almost superhuman capacity to endure. 

Viewed partially through the eyes of 10 year-old Alexander and his 8 year-old sister, Fanny, the beauty of this film is how it is able to capture that mystical time in a young life when, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, "Everything was possible and nothing made sense." It celebrates, at its center, that extraordinary ability in children to unquestioningly accept the real and the magical with the same level of gravity, accommodating the tragic and joyous in life with an almost existential grace. In framing its magic realism within the structure of a broadly emotive theatrical family seen from the perspective of a watchful little boy with a vivid, almost psychic, imagination, "Fanny & Alexander" offers us a glimpse into the formative influences (both sensual and spiritual) on Bergman and his art.
"There comes my family"
Helena, matriarch of the Ekdahl family, lovingly observes the arrival of her offspring.
Though the theatrical version of the film is a masterpiece in itself (clocking in at a considerable 188 minutes), my movie-geek prayers were answered when the original, uncut  312-minute version was released in the Unites States several years back by The Criterion Collection (really, is this the only DVD release company that loves movies?). It is absolute HEAVEN! The opening Christmas sequence alone is worth the price.
As some people do with "The Wizard of Oz" or "Gone With the Wind," I watch "Fanny & Alexander" once a year, usually around Christmas or New Year's. It's my idea of the perfect adult fairy tale. There's a villain, a haunted castle, a damsel in distress, evil in-laws, a sorcerer, and a magic potion. The literate screenplay (by Bergman) has passages of genuine poetry that are as moving and eloquent as ever captured in a motion picture. No matter how often I see it, it never fails to leave me charmed and teary-eyed.

One of the great gifts of getting older is that, with the gaining of wisdom (hopefully), comes a peace and ease with the unalterable vicissitudes of life. You no longer need armor yourself with an unearned belief in life's cruelty, nor do you need to sentimentalize your existence with fantasies of everything being rosy. You take the good with the bad and learn to cling to the joyful moments, large and small, grateful for friends and loved ones and those everyday miracles that you are content with never possibly understanding. "Fanny & Alexander" feels like a work of an artist matured. Gone is the predominantly dark palate of Bergman's earlier works; with this film he is willing to embrace the light along with the shadows.

I first fell in love with the faces (such a delight to see wrinkles, sagging skin, imperfections: character!), then the brilliant words, then the affecting performances...all are so rich and in such full flower that I can't isolate any single individual as my favorite. Like Robert Altman's Nashville, "Fanny & Alexander" is built on the ensemble players, perfectly cast and completely in concert.

Magic realism has long intrigued me when used in film. The matter-of-fact melding of the real and the supernatural seems a perfect stylistic choice for motion pictures, but few films handle it effectively. In "Fanny & Alexander" the intrusion of magic and the supernatural into the corporeal world fits well the film's child's-eye-view perspective; its Grimm's fairy-tale-like narrative; and its philosophical meditations.  None of this is new territory for Ingmar Bergman, but I think this film showcases his most natural, least surreal, employment of this stylistic device.
In one of the film's many poetically moving sequences, Alexander's "guardian angel" grants an unspoken wish.
The first 90-minutes of "Fanny & Alexander" is devoted to a family Christmas get-together that is a cinematic marvel and could stand on its own as a separate film. Ostensibly an expositional introduction to all the main characters; everything from Sven Nykvist's breathtaking cinematography to the touchingly realized human interactions (there's an exchange between a sweet-faced little girl and one of the servants regarding the bearing of grief while others are happy that just tears my heart out), it is a sequence of familial warmth unlike anything I've seen. Virtuoso filmmaking.
  Helena: "Are you sad because you've grown old?"
Isak: "I'm certainly not. Everything's getting worse. Worse people, worse machines, worse wars...and worse weather."
I've never understood how Woody Allen, when trying to channel his idol, Ingmar Bergman, always managed to come up with such shallow, constipated, and dull copies. Bergman's work, if nothing else, brim over with life and humanity. I understand how he's not everybody's cup of tea, but my experience of his films (especially "Wild Strawberries"...another favorite) has been that they are more passionate and emotional than cerebral, and a great deal more entertaining than they are given credit for.

Why exactly "Fanny & Alexander" speaks to me on such a sentimental level can be summed up by quotes from two other films that convey (more eloquently than I could) philosophical ideologies that get me in the gut every time:

From the film Sling Blade- "I don't think anything bad ought to happen to children. I think the bad stuff should be saved up for the people whose grown up. That's the way I see it."
From the film Little Children- "We're all miracles. Know why? Because as humans, every day we go about our business, and all that time we know... we all know... that the things we love... the people we love, at any time now can all be taken away. We live knowing that and we keep going anyway. Animals don't do that."

These simple sentiments touch my emotional core very keenly. They are the facts of life and compassionate human existence. In "Fanny & Alexander" Ingmar Bergman expounds upon them in such artfully dramatic and poetic ways that, in my eyes, he has created nothing short of an unqualified masterpiece.

Friday, June 24, 2011


There are some movies you fall in love with that seriously call your judgment, aesthetics, and sanity into question. These are films that fall outside of the easy-to-rationalize pleasures of camp, the beyond-criticism snobbery of cult, and the so-subjective-it doesn't-bear-discussion reverence of geek-culture franchises. These are the movies that appeal to you for reasons (in the words of Barbarella's Durand-Durand), "That are beyond all known philosophies."

"Eyes of Laura Mars" is such a film. A well-crafted, imaginative, suspense thriller whose flaws frequently loom so large that, over time, they start to take on the character of virtues.
Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars
Tommy Lee Jones as Det. John Neville
Rene Auberjonois as Donald Phelps: Laura's Manager
Brad Dourif as Tommy Ludlow: Laura's skeevy driver
Darlanne Fluegel as Lulu - a model
Real-life 70s supermodel Lisa Taylor as Michele - a 70s supermodel
Raul Julia as Michael Reisler: Laura's suspicious-acting ex-husband
"Eyes of Laura Mars" —you can tell the film is hip because, like a rock band that wants to be taken seriously, it dispenses with the article, "The" at the start — is a romantic thriller about a hotshot New York fashion photographer (Dunaway) whose titular eyes she shares with a serial killer. Not literally, like a Manhattan co-op, but psychically: at grievously inconvenient moments throughout her day, Laura Mars literally sees through the eyes of the killer. Targeting her friends and colleagues, the killer implicates the controversially provocative photographer by committing murders in ways that duplicate (inspire? Hmmm...) Laura's own death-fixated, violently erotic fashion layouts.

At its core, "Eyes of Laura Mars" may be just a another stylishly dressed-up pulp thriller, but BOY is it a pulp thriller that works!
The Eyes of Dunaway & Auberjonois
Movies built around a gimmick, even a clever one, can be problematic. Everything hinges on working the gimmick into the film as quickly and as frequently as possible, often at the expense of a coherent plot. "Eyes of Laura Mars" teeters on occasion with a screenplay committed to delivering the genre goods as honestly as possible (lots of red herrings, dark rooms, shock cuts, and people popping into frame out of nowhere), but with its tin ear for dialog, luckily it has the good sense not to take itself too seriously.
Faye Dunaway, in the first of many suitable-for-a-drag-queen roles that would soon derail her once-impressive film career, is actually rather good here and is given solid support by a compelling cast of New York actors.
Hunky Detective Tommy Lee Jones shows Dunaway the finer points of firearms while showing the audience a little beefcake.
However, the film's greatest asset is its setting. Not since "Blow Up" has the world of fashion photography been used to such irresistible effect. Inspired by a real-life hot-button social issue of the late 70s: the emergence of violent, sadomasochistic imagery in fashion and advertising (specifically the works of Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, & Rebecca Blake), "Eyes of Laura Mars" makes colorfully dramatic use of the mystique surrounding the fashion industry, creating a credible backdrop for its implausible, "I have an ocular/psychic bond with a serial killer!" gimmick.
Released three years before the debut of MTV, "Eyes of Laura Mars" can be credited or blamed with paving the way for the glut of  80s thrillers that endeavored to hide  narrative shortcomings behind an overabundance of visual panache. Many have tried, but few have been able to hit all the high notes that "Eyes of Laura Mars" does so effortlessly. At times loopy, obvious, and heavy-handed, there are still enough surprises to go around and it is never for one second, boring. In fact, it's really a lot of lurid fun.

"OK America, OK world... you are violent. You are pushing all this murder on us, so here it comes right back at you! And we'll use murder to sell that you'll just get bored with murder. Right?"
Not everything one loves about a film is actually up on the screen. Sometimes it's what we associate it with and what memories it evokes. Every time I watch this movie I think of the summer of 1978: the year I turned 21 and moved to Los Angeles on my own. One of my strongest first impressions of the city was the enormous "Eyes of Laura Mars"  billboard on the Sunset Strip. It was the same iconic Scavullo portrait of Dunaway used in the poster, but the staring eyes were illuminated and flashed on and off 24/7. It could be seen from blocks away and I was just thunderstruck by it. Seriously, it was like some 70's reimagining of "The Great Gatsby" with me as a bell-bottomed George Wilson mesmerized by the eyes of a female Dr. T.J. Eckleburg staring down from an advertisement.

It's not easy being a Faye Dunaway fan. When she's good she's peerless, but unless handled by a particularly watchful director, she's prone to giving overly mannered performances (one recalls Jan Hook's hilariously spot-on Dunaway impersonation on "SCTV"). Hot off of her Oscar win for "Network" and in the first role requiring her to truly carry a film, Dunaway falls somewhere in between here.
Laura Mars on falling in love: "I'm completely out of control!"
Words that would come back to haunt Ms. Dunaway three years later on the release of "Mommie Dearest."
My absolute favorite performance in the film is given by Darlanne Fluegel, portraying a sweetly ditzy model of the sort I once thought exclusively indigenous to Los Angeles. Hers is a disarmingly smart and funny performance keyed perfectly to the semi-satiric tone the film adopts for the modeling sequences. She is terrific.
Darlanne Fluegel - Pretty in Pink

Were this thriller comprised solely of fashion shoot sequences and behind-the-scenes footage of Laura Mars at work (in some of the most flamboyantly impractical outfits ever), it would be enough.
Casual Fridays for Laura Mars
Each scene plays out like a little mini-film: kinetic, witty, and bubbling over with an unerringly precise sense of time and place. Unlike laughable sequences in movies like Valley of the Dolls that try to make modeling look glamorous and desirable, "Eyes of Laura Mars" is not afraid to mine the absurdity.
The elaborate/outrageous photo shoot sequences that are the film's centerpieces pose provocative questions about violent sexual imagery in advertising that "Eyes of Laura Mars" never satisfactorily address.

As a time capsule vision of late 70s chic, "Eyes of Laura Mars" is perfection (although the once-daring photos at the center of the plot look almost quaint by today's standards), which only adds to my overall enjoyment of a film that, for all its faults, continues to fascinate and entertain me through repeated viewings. Still, given the relative kinky cleverness of the premise, I might wish that the film's potential was better realized in the script. I don't usually need everything spelled out for me, but it does nag at one to have interesting ideas introduced and never expanded upon. For example, I'm not sure it's ever explained why/how Laura came to share the killer's "eyes" and what, if anything, it all signified in relation to her photographs. Also, as the film progresses, Laura's attitude towards violence seems to undergo a change and she becomes more squeamish about the glamorized bloodletting she had once defended. Does this mean that her earlier "moral" defense of her work has altered as well?

In the end, perhaps these kind of questions don't ultimately matter in a film so preoccupied with visual style.
What I do know is that "Eyes of Laura Mars" has been one of my favorite films for the last 33 years.
A statement I proudly make without benefit of excuses, apologies, or rose-colored glasses...just with my eyes wide open.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


I know of several parents who indulge their young children — always sons, for some reason — by allowing them to watch PG or R-rated horror films and aggressive, comic-book action movies. In each instance the parent is quick to point out that it's always at the child's insistence, and (being the good parents they are) should things on the screen start to get hairy, they're at their kid’s side, reminding him it's all just fakery and only a movie. A sort of Parent's Magazine reversal of The Ludovico Technique from "A Clockwork Orange," I guess. Terrific. More kids desensitized to, and made tolerant of, depictions of violence and brutality.

Since a great many of the films that have meant the most to me were films deemed "mature" for my age when I first saw them: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - age 11,  "Midnight Cowboy" - age 12, I obviously don’t have a problem with young people seeing so-called "age inappropriate" movies. However, I do have two problems with the above scenario:  1) Movies are one of the few realms of fantasy that life still affords us after we reach post-Santa Claus/Easter bunny adulthood. It seems a shame to rob a person of the transgressive magic of film by hammering them over the head with reminders of its artificiality. Yes, movie images are indeed "fake," but the emotions those fake images evoke are not, and that's ultimately what's most real about the filmgoing experience. To watch something and be encouraged not to feel anything about what you see suggests training a child to be impassive and cut off from his feelings. 2) Why are the mature films these kids allowed to see always these loud, brainless, ADD inducing, explosion-a-thons and never movies that promote empathy and sensitivity to the human condition?
Films like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (which I saw when I was 12) should be mandatory viewing for all adolescents and a great many adults. A gut-wrenching contemplation on the fragile durability of hope in the face of life's ostensible futility, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" uses the allegorical setting of a grueling dance marathon set in Depression-era Hollywood (all the participants seem to be wannabe movie stars) to look at the devastating ways in which the human necessity to connect is so often thwarted by the equally human need to erect walls of defense to shield ourselves from the pain of living.
Jane Fonda as Gloria Beatty
Michael Sarrazin as Robert Syverten
Gig Young as Rocky
Susannah York as Alice
Red Buttons as Sailor
 "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is framed around a deceptively simple, character-driven plot: two dissimilar dreamers in 1932 Hollywood are thrown together by fate (the embittered, pessimistic Gloria and the naively good-natured Robert) to tragic effect. By placing the action within the unfamiliar, almost freak-show atmosphere of a dance contest whose chief requirements are desperation and a masochist's tolerance for pain, the film gets to make many perceptive, still-relevant points about the pursuit of unmerited fame and the public's insatiable appetite for hollow myth.

Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" both cast 1930s Hollywood (as embodied by the movie industry) as a Lilith leading men to their doom, but the films adapted from these novels differ significantly. While I love both movies, there is something so humane about director Sydney Pollack's approach to the material that makes it the more compelling piece. The penny-ante aspirations of the protagonists are never belittled, nor are their character flaws looked upon with anything other than empathy for the suffering that lay at their core. 
If the characters in "The Day of the Locust" are rendered grotesques due to the surrender of their souls to valueless dreams, the dreamers in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" are guilty of little more than being misguided in their fruitless, potentially hopeless, quest for something to believe in.
Before Reality-TV: People are the ultimate spectacle
"The crowd has got to have something to believe in. Once they stop believing, they stop coming."
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" represents the best film work of virtually every member of its talented cast, but the recent deaths of co-stars Susannah York and Michael Sarrazin add an extra layer of poignancy to two performances that already tug at the heartstrings pretty strongly. Portraying two Candide-like innocents left broken and disillusioned by what could best be called the neutral cruelty of life, the impossibly young duo are agonizing in their vulnerability and both give memorably moving performances.
Alice on the Edge: York's haunting breakdown scene
Robert...always seeking the sun
 Gig Young, whom I had heretofore only known as an annoyingly glib presence in several smirky sex comedies, gives one of those naked, laying-it-all-on-the-line performances (like Ann-Margaret's in "Carnal Knowledge") that feels borne of years of frustration in being professionally underestimated.
 The same can be said of Jane Fonda who functionally changed the course of her career with this film. Though perhaps a tad too beautiful and angularly delicate to physically embody the life-hardened heroine of McCoy's novel (imagine Ann Savage from 1945's "Detour"), Fonda is nonetheless emotionally right on target and gives off an edgy electricity that jumps off the screen. She's just flawless here.

The only movie I know of to use America's short-lived marathon dance phenomena for a dramatic backdrop, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" confines itself almost exclusively to a single indoor set, yet still manages to be vividly cinematic. Employing an intimate, if not invasive, shooting style that makes imaginative use of hand-held cameras, a stiflingly claustrophobic environment of precise time and place is evoked that never once feels stagy or set-bound.

I have seen hundreds of films over the years so it doesn't surprise me that I've forgotten so many. But what does surprise me (as the years pile up) are the films that have never left my mind and the images that remain as clear to me now as the day I first saw them.  
Which brings me to the incredible "derby" sequence: a virtuoso bit of filmmaking employing music, fast cuts, and dizzying hand-held camerawork to create one of cinema's most powerful visual representations of hopeless desperation. It's my absolute favorite scene from the film. 
In 1969 the use of slow motion hadn't yet become the movie cliché it would eventually grow into, so the agonizingly protracted sequence depicting a cluster of overfatigued individuals racing in a circle to a discordant calliope arrangement of the optimistic anthem, "California Here I Come" (thus rendered a perverse, human merry-go-round), was an image so poetically unique, yet hypnotically horrific, that I never forgot it.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is my idea of a truly "adult" film; a film of ideas and insight that compels you to be sensitive to the frailties of others. I can't attest to whether or not my youthful penchant for R-rated films ultimately did me more harm than good, but I'm glad that the mature films I did seek out were indeed that, films of maturity. I had cried at movies before; at some sad action like Bambi's mother being killed or some hero shot trying to save his best friend, but "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was the first film that made me cry just because the characters onscreen were so wounded and in so much pain.
"Maybe it's just the whole damn world is like Central Casting. They got it all rigged before you ever show up."